Irish Referendum May 22: Women who struggle seriously for peace but lau gh at hecklers

PEARL SAGAR'S background is Protestant working class, she is essentially a Unionist, she is married to a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland, and until recently she was, she says, politically apathetic: "The first time I ever voted was for myself, and that was just two years ago."

Ms Sagar's work in the Women's Coalition movement has incurred the antipathy of some loyalist activists who forced her to move from her previous home. She is, they say, a traitor who has betrayed her community.

It is not just street-level extremists who find the 39-year-old grandmother such a threat to the established order. The Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party are said to seethe with rage at Ms Sagar and her co-founder of the coalition, Monica McWilliams, who is a Catholic. Many of the insults flung at them were overtly sexist. "Stupid, whingeing women," they were called at the Northern Ireland Forum. Iris Robinson, wife of DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, declared: "Thank God only 7,000 idiots voted for these women."

Ms Sagar has become adept at turning the sexist insults back on her attackers. When a DUP member, finding it difficult to fathom the consensual nature of the coalition, demanded to know whether it was nationalist or loyalist, she responded: "Surely since we are women it must depend on the time of the month."

When during discussions on decommissioning of weapons Mr Paisley started a tirade about the birth rates of Catholics and how the Protestants must procreate to protect Ulster's British legacy, she turned to a colleague and said, sotto voce: "Does he want an adjournment so we can all go and start at once?"

And then there was Willie McCrea, also of the DUP, who declared: "As long as I live, I will have a mission, which is to teach these two women to stand behind the loyal men of Ulster." At this point Ms Sagar and Ms McWilliams burst into a rendition of "Stand By Your Man".

The Women's Coalition was founded by Ms Sagar, a social worker, and Ms McWilliams, a social scientist, in 1996. Within weeks they had picked up 7,731 votes for the Forum. Under a top-up system, designed to ensure the involvement of fringe loyalist groups, the coalition won two seats at the Forum and Stormont, taken up by the movement's two leaders.

The bigger parties were not enamoured with the system. The Unionists, for example, ended up with only one more delegate than the coalition for the all-party talks.

Ms McWilliams, a Queen's University graduate and a Michigan post-graduate, has had by far the higher profile of the two leaders of the movement. Ms Sagar has kept a lower profile. However, she refuses to be overawed by those who consider themselves to be her political elders. "It is only when I got [to the talks] that I began to realise just how childish politics had become in Northern Ireland,"she says. "People here have simply been playing politics for the last 28 years.

"All the talking has been about the sectarian divisions, with powerful interests doing their best to maintain that divide. What they haven't addressed are the real issues like the conditions the working-class people live in, their jobs, their education."

Ms Sagar and her colleague have tried to steel themselves to cope with the barracking and heckling to which they are subjected. She explained: "I've probably been helped by the fact that I am not particularly politically correct, and I sometimes laugh at jokes I shouldn't do. Our hecklers look confused when I laugh at them. I've also taught myself just to carry on with the speeches, you can see that deflate them as well."

She believes the future is full of promise. "What the peace process has done is change the political map of Northern Ireland," she says. "People will hopefully in the future not vote according to whether they are Catholic or Protestants, but according to their own hopes and needs. I'm very glad I am here to see this happen."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world